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April 2015

Learning About Gay Life Before Stonewall

SageSAGE is a social welfare organization that looks after the needs of elderly gay men and lesbians.  In the summer of 1985, when I was 28, I volunteered for its Friendly Visitor program, which matches volunteers with a SAGE client for weekly visits - to talk, do light errands or have a meal together.  My client was 75-year-old Jim Chesbro, who lived on East 21st St.  He grew up in Albany and was in the Merchant Marines where he was involved in resettling European refugees after World War II.  Like Sammy Davis Jr., he lost an eye in a car accident when he was in his 20s.  His voice reminded me somewhat of Truman Capote's.  Every other week I'd visit with Jim after work for an hour or so.  Besides being gay we were also both Mets fans.  


My visits proved beneficial for both of us.  Over a cocktail or a glass of wine he'd tell me stories about his life in the 1930s, '40s and '50s, and I enjoyed getting a first-hand history lesson about what gay life was like back then.  In some respects Jim was the grandfather (s) I never had.  He told me that in Albany everyone in his gay circle had an assigned woman's name (his was Laura) and he'd go to house parties where everyone changed into drag upon arriving.  And in Cherry Grove of the 1950s there was no electricity so dinner parties were held by candlelight and guests often wore tuxes.




Occasionally we'd eat at his favorite Chinese restaurant, and he insisted on paying.  He also gave me cash gifts at Christmas, Easter and on my birthday - which was against SAGE regulations.  For Thanksgiving 1985 I made a pumpkin pie for him and we went to dinner at The Old Forge on 3rd Ave. and 17th Street.  And while Jim was always a gentleman, during one visit he said that he'd like to see me in a sailor's suit and have me pretend that I was "rough trade"!  




It seemed that most of Jim's gay experiences were with hustlers or furtive moments with straight sailors.  However, he did tell me of one long-term romance.  In the 1930s, before joining the Merchant Marine, he was a teacher and librarian at a prison near Albany, where he carried on a 7-year relationship with a prisoner.  He was able to pull some strings and get him an early parole and they moved to Jacksonville, Florida.  However, it turned out the fellow was more or less straight, so Jim moved out after five months.




Jim's mobility was severely impaired by arthritis, which forced him to curtail traveling, something he used to love to do.  The few times we ventured out he'd use a cane and hold on to me.  It was quite a challenge crossing the street with him before the light changed.  Because of his frail condition Jim wanted me to accompany him to the Jersey shore for a vacation and to Fire Island, where a friend owned a home.  In fact, a weekend visit out to the Pines was planned during the summer of 1986, but Jim took ill and it was postponed. 


Jim was a client for little more than a year when he died of a heart attack at the end of July 1986.  I got a call at work from one of the friends he often spoke about, Bill Funck.  Later that day I went down to Jim's apartment and met Bill and a few of the friends he mentioned as well as his sister, Mae, who still lived in Albany.  Bill was the friend of Jim's with the house in the Pines and he invited me out a few weekends later.  (He also owned one of the liquor stores in the harbor.)  His house was on Driftwood Walk, and when I took a share in the Pines ten years later my house was on the same walk.




After Jim's death, Arlene, the manager of the Friendly Visitor program sent me a note expressing her condolences and encouraging me to call her if I needed to talk.  She also hoped I would continue with the program, but I didn't because I didn't want to experience another client's decline and death.  Also, I had heard from other Friendly Visitors how high maintenance some of the clients could be and I realized how easy I had it with Jim.


What struck me as I listened to Jim's stories was that despite the  homophobic times Jim lived in he had fun and interesting experiences, even while living a closeted life.  Nowadays I wonder if gay men in their 20s and 30s think living in the 1970s and '80s was also somewhat of a Dark Ages for acceptance for gay men of my generation.





Nature of All Kinds Abounds in The Ramble in Central Park




The Ramble is a wooded area situated in the middle of Central Park, between 72nd and 79th Streets.  It was notorious for being a "meeting place" for gay men, not unlike Fire Island's Meat Rack, only less safe.  According to Wikipedia, "Since at least the early 20th century, the seclusion of the Ramble has been used for private homosexual encounters."  In the 1920s and '30s it was referred to as the "Fruited Plain".  (Surprisingly, this cruising spot was never referenced in any Village People song.)  Today it seems to have largely lost its allure due largely to Grindr and other similar apps.  Meanwhile the general public thinks of it as a place for bird watching.




While I've had my share of encounters in the Meat Rack, I never ventured into the Ramble looking to hook up.  (In fact, I used to think it was called The Bramble.)  However, when I was coming out in the late 1970s and still living in Pittsburgh I had some of my first gay sexual experiences in a wooded area in Schenley Park, located near the campus of the University of Pittsburgh.  I used to bike there from home (a trip of about 15 miles).  Another outdoor escapade occurred shortly after I moved to New York when a boyfriend and I cavorted in Harriman State Park (in Rockland County). 


Occasionally, I'd lay out on the sloped lawn adjacent to the Ramble to get some sun or to rest after biking around the park.  My first time there (1981) I bumped into a fellow I had just met at my new job (he later became my boss) and he was there with his boyfriend.  Since there were plenty of other places to meet guys, especially if you were openly gay, I never thought of exploring the Ramble as a meeting place. 




During the summer of 1978 figure skating legend Dick Button was mugged in the Ramble as was newspaper columnist Stuart Elliott in the early '80s (before he wrote the Advertising column for the New York Times).  This incident was the impetus behind Elliott coming out publicly (but not so for Button, which brings to mind the notoriously closeted Kevin Spacey who, after being mugged in 2004 in a section of a London park known for being a cruising spot, concocted a story about walking his dog at 4 AM and tripping on its leash).  And one non-celebrity, a former boyfriend who was sexually compulsive and liked to sneak out to the Ramble, was beaten and robbed there on one occasion.




In popular culture the Ramble was mentioned in John Rechy's 1963 novel City of Night.  Then thirty years later Tony Kushner's Pullitzer-winning play  Angels in America depicted an explicit encounter in the Ramble, with one of the characters wanting to be infected with HIV by engaging in unsafe sex.




And in May 2020 the Ramble briefly got national attention after a racist encounter between a white woman and an African American bird watcher was recorded on his phone and went viral.  (The woman took umbrage when the bird watcher advised her that her dog needed to be on a leash in that part of the park, and she called the police and reported that her life was being threatened.)


Racist encounter in the ramble